The Art of Selfishness

In THE ART OF SELFISHNESS, author David Seabury talks, fundamentally, about the difference between what we’ll call productive selfishness and destructive selfishness. And after reading his book, and talking about with some folks about it, I believe that understanding those differences–and then acting accordingly–can have a remarkable positive impact on ours lives.

Productive Selfishness: Let’s say a friend asks you to help him move. He’s a pretty good friend, and you really want to help him out. You’re not necessarily excited about moving furniture, but you figure it’s the kind of thing your friend would do for you if the situations were reversed.

But truth is, you’re physically tired from a long couple of weeks at work. You’ve been feeling pretty run down lately and it’s been getting worse, and you just need a weekend to yourself to recuperate. You also feel that if you exert yourself now, you may take a legitimate turn for the worse. So you tell your friend that you won’t be able to help him move.

And then he guilts you. “Come on, dude. Help me out. You know I’d totally help you. It’ll only take a few hours. Otherwise I’ll be at this all day by myself or it’ll cost me a fortune to hire movers.”

So what should you do? The answer is, it depends. But I think Seabury would argue that while you might feel on some level that helping your friend is a good thing to do–that you’re being a good friend–if it compromises your well-being or your values to a degree that would be more harmful to you than it would be helpful to your friend, then you should say no, even if your friend gives you grief about it. This is an example of productive selfishness.

Of course, every situation is different; there’s no one size fits all. We need to consider all factors and then make the best decision we can.

But I think that we have been conditioned over the generations to often let guilt dictate our actions, and to worry about what other people will think about us. Far too often we put what other people want ahead of what’s best for us. We compromise our values, thinking that we’re doing so for a good reason. And sometimes making a sacrifice is the right thing to do. It can be difficult to know what the best decision is. But I think it’s extremely important that we understand–and legitimately believe–that saying no is an absolutely acceptable option. Knowing when to say no is the tricky part.

It’s something I’ve struggled with for many, many years, especially when I was younger. I’ve gotten a far better handle on it now, but it can still be a tough one for me. And being a dad now, I can only image what’s coming.

Destructive Selfishness: Here’s a true story. When I was in college my fraternity (don’t judge) had a spaghetti lunch one weekend. We held it at my apartment. Basically, we just made mounds of pasta and had a meal together. To accompany our pasta, we also bought a couple of bags of garlic bread that you heat up in the broiler. Naturally, everybody wanted a piece, and there was only so much to go around.

One guy who, we’ll call Fred, was first in line in the kitchen (sort of no surprise there). So I served him up a plate of spaghetti, and put a piece of garlic bread on his plate. And then he grabbed another one. When I told him that it was only one to a customer, he got aggressive with me. I told him to put one piece back. We argued. Finally, he walked away with only piece.

Had there been far more bread than people, I wouldn’t have cared that he took another piece of bread. But he knew there was only enough bread for each person to get one piece. He knew that, and tried to take a second piece anyway.

Nothing good came from Fred’s selfishness here. Had he taken two pieces, then someone else wouldn’t have gotten any. And even though he ultimately put the second piece back, his selfishness, and then his subsequent attempts to justify his selfishness, added stress to what was supposed to be a fun day, and also demonstrated that he was far more interested in what he wanted than in being equitable. Beyond that, trying to scam a second piece of garlic bread is just so petty that it inherently lowers the quality of the experience on its face.

This is destructive selfishness.  Fred thought only of himself–and acted accordingly–in a way that was harmful to others, and, really, to himself.

Overall, I’d say I’ve done a fairly good job over the years of descerning when and where to be productive selfishness, but life has a funny way of reminding me that I’ll be tested every day on this one, and that the moment I think I’ve got it licked is the day I’ll get it wrong.

(note: the original version of this blog ran January 23, 2007).

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